Your Hotel Stay May Be Bad For The Environment. Here Are 8 Ways To Fix That.

Traveling is an exciting and beloved thing for many people, but it is hard on the environment. Here's how to reduce your carbon footprint at your hotel.
Traveling is an exciting and beloved thing for many people, but it is hard on the environment. Here's how to reduce your carbon footprint at your hotel. Giselleflissak via Getty Images

Staying in a hotel can feel like a luxury, but it doesn’t come without a price ― and no, we’re not just talking about the nightly rate. It also can increase your carbon footprint.

So how do you enjoy your hotel experience without contributing to a global problem? Between blasting air conditioning in every guest room (why are hotel rooms always so cold?), constant towel and sheet washing and the travel it takes to get there, it may feel hard to be sustainable on a trip.

But it is possible, and there are some pretty easy things you can do in your hotel to make your experience more environmentally friendly. Here are a few expert-approved ways to make your hotel stay greener.

First, choose a sustainable hotel.

“Most of the environmental impact and total carbon of your hotel stay happened when the hotel was built, so as a traveler, you can’t really address that. But you can support businesses that build responsibly,” said Jesse Lytle, the vice president, chief of staff and chief sustainability officer at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

These locations have efficient building designs, energy systems and good sustainable practices, he said. Many of the hotels that follow these regulations also go through certain certification programs to show their commitment to the environment.

You’ll also want to make sure that whatever certificate the hotel claims to have is third-party certified, said Kristi Straus, the associate director of the program on the environment at the University of Washington. The Environmental Protection Agency has a resource list of some of these certifications, Lytle noted. Or you can browse databases like the Global Sustainable Tourism Council or look for hotels that are LEED certified, Straus said.

Try to book a hotel in an area that doesn’t require constant reliance on a car.

“If you can choose a hotel that’s near where you’re going to go for most of your time, you can walk or you can bike to reduce your impact on the environment,” said Andrew Stuhl, an associate professor of environmental studies and sciences at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

Additionally, by walking or biking around, you’re getting in some exercise during your travels, he noted.

To find a hotel that’s convenient for you and your trip, first list out the attractions you’re planning to visit. From there, you can see if there’s a hotel that’s near some of the sites or find a place to stay in a central area.

Be mindful of your heating and cooling settings.

A big source of energy use in hotels is the heating and cooling systems, including your hotel’s air temperature and the heating of the water in the bathroom, Straus said.

“So, shorter showers and adjusting your thermostat are actually really important,” Straus said.

Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean you can’t wear a sweater in your room instead of turning the heat up in the winter (which is something you probably do in your own home when you’re in charge of paying for your heat bill). “Having the ability to adjust the thermostat is valuable,” Straus added.

Choose the food you’re eating carefully.

Whether your hotel has a restaurant, continental breakfast or an all-you-can-eat buffet, experts say there are several sustainable choices you can make around food.

I don’t want to ruin any vacation, but up to 60% of a person’s eco-footprint is really embedded in the foods that you buy and consume,” Lytle said. “So when you’re on vacation, making those choices really adds up.”

This could look like choosing plant-based meals, which are lighter on the planet, Lytle noted, or making “reducetarian” choices, which means lessening the amount of meat you consume.

Additionally, Straus said it’s important to be mindful of how much food you order or serve yourself. “Individuals take more than they eat and then they waste that food, right? So that’s a way individuals can be more sustainable,” Straus said.

When deciding on a hotel, pick one that is within walking or biking distance of most of the attractions you want to see.
When deciding on a hotel, pick one that is within walking or biking distance of most of the attractions you want to see. fancy.yan via Getty Images

Skip the hotel’s mini soaps and shampoos.

Your hotel bathroom might have mini soaps, lotions, shampoos or conditioners available for use. If it does, resisting the urge to use a single-use toiletry product is a good way to reduce your footprint, Lytle said.

“My advice would be: Bring what you need in order to reduce the use of disposable items. Those little shampoo bottles and toiletries that you throw away, they’re pretty inefficient in terms of their packaging and how they get distributed,” Lytle said. This way, you’re helping keep these mini items out of the landfill stream, he noted. 

Don’t opt-in for daily laundry.

Washing sheets and towels on a daily basis — a service that most hotels offer — has a definite negative impact on the planet.

“The automatic default is to clean the room every day and wash everything, which most of us don’t do at home — that is a very wasteful process,” Straus explained.

Cleaning sheets and towels require lots of water and electricity in addition to the other cleaning supplies necessary for the task.

“That is both a waste of resources and also, probably, most hotel guests don’t want that service,” Straus said.

While skipping daily sheet and towel changes can save water, skipping housekeeping altogether can actually make room cleaning more intensive (resulting in more product use) and can result in fewer jobs for housekeepers, said Ted Waechter, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE, which represents hospitality workers. So, you can opt out of daily laundry but still support housekeepers by opting in for housekeeping during your hotel stay.

Think about the hotel (and businesses) you’re supporting.

“We constantly think of reducing our impact on the environment through reducing our use of water or energy ... but I find it really helpful to broaden the definition,” Stuhl said. “We can include environment, but also two ‘e’ words: ‘equity’ and ‘economic development’ that is sustainable and community focused.”

Stuhl said that when environmental activists think about sustainability or being green, they should also consider that sustainability can also help support local business owners instead of large corporations.

“Trying to green in this way when we’re thinking about not just the environment, but equity and sustainable economic development, I think can really leave some lasting and meaningful experiences,” he added.

To do this, Stuhl said to book a hotel that is locally owned and pays its employees fair wages. It’s even better if the hotel sources its food or textiles from local farms and makers. When you buy a meal or book a night at the hotel, you’re supporting staff and farmers who live in the area, along with the community’s local traditions, he said. Additionally, in this case, your food doesn’t have to travel as far to get to your plate.

And don’t be afraid to raise sustainability questions with the front desk.

If you’re looking for opportunities to be green at your hotel and not finding them — like if there isn’t a place to refill your reusable water bottle or you don’t see a recycling bin in your room ― raise it with the hotel manager.

“I think if we care, it’s our responsibility to talk to the management,” noted Straus.

Between flights, car emissions, souvenir shopping and increased foot traffic, traveling takes a toll on the environment, so it’s essential to do what you can to help lessen that toll.

This story has been updated with more information about daily housekeeping and its potential effects.